Navy celebrates its aviation centennial

NORTH ISLAND NAVAL AIR STATION — It started humbly enough, just seven years after the Wright brothers' flight at Kitty Hawk.

Glenn Curtiss, a brash entrepreneur and motorcycle racer from New York, was looking for a warm-weather spot to open a school to teach people how to handle these new contraptions called flying machines. He chose a marshy bit of land in Coronado, adjacent to San Diego Bay.

Navy brass, curious but skeptical, assigned a young submariner, Theodore "Spuds" Ellyson, to enroll in the Curtiss school.

What the businessman/inventor and the Navy lieutenant accomplished in the first weeks of 1911 convinced the Navy that airplanes had a military use. The two had a talent for engineering and showmanship.

When Curtiss landed his plane on the beach beside the Hotel del Coronado, the brass was impressed. And when he landed on the bay next to the cruiser Pennsylvania, Naval aviation was born.

By mid-1911, the Navy had purchased its first plane, the Curtiss A-1 Triad, built mostly of wood and cloth, with the pilot sitting in front of the eight-cylinder engine. Ellyson, a graduate of the Naval Academy, was designated as Naval Aviator No. 1 and ordered to open the Navy's own flying school in Coronado.

Curtiss became a pioneer of the American aircraft industry, a rival of the Wrights. Ellyson's notes from those early days in Coronado — detailed and passionate about the possibility of flight — are enshrined at the Smithsonian Institution. He held several important commands and received a Navy Cross in World War I.

Today, the Navy will again salute the saga of Curtiss and Ellyson as it celebrates the centennial of naval aviation at the location revered as its birthplace, now the North Island Naval Air Station.

The base will hold an all-day open house and air show, including a flyover of more than 200 aircraft from vintage to supersonic.